06/09/2011 2:06PM

Belmont Stakes: Animal Kingdom's roller coaster comes to last stop


ELMONT, N.Y. – What a long, strange trip it has been the past two months for trainer Graham Motion.

He won the Wood Memorial with Toby’s Corner, beating the previously unbeaten champion Uncle Mo. But less than a week before the Kentucky Derby, Toby’s Corner had to be withdrawn with a minor injury. Then Animal Kingdom popped up and won the Kentucky Derby for Motion. Two weeks later, hopes of a Triple Crown sweep ended when Animal Kingdom finished second to Shackleford in the Preakness.

“It’s been a roller coaster. Every week, it’s pretty much been something different,” Motion said this week at Belmont Park. “I’ve had plenty of sleepless nights. And I’ve always been a pretty good sleeper, until the last month.”

The last stop on Motion’s Triple Crown odyssey is Belmont Park for Saturday’s 143rd Belmont Stakes, in which Animal Kingdom will be favored to win the race. To do so, though, he will have to beat Shackleford and 10 other 3-year-olds, including Derby runner-up Nehro, Irish invader Master of Hounds, and Triple Crown road warrior Mucho Macho Man.

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At 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races, and sometimes the strangest, witness the improbable longshots that have won it in recent years, like Da’ Tara, Sarava, and Commendable, all of whom never won another race. The last time a favorite won the Belmont was in 2005, when Afleet Alex prevailed in the last Belmont that featured a matchup between the Derby and Preakness winners.

Animal Kingdom vs. ShacklefordThe budding rivalry between Animal Kingdom and Shackleford is the best selling point of this race. In the Derby, Animal Kingdom overcame a slow pace and rallied powerfully to win. In the Preakness, Shackleford was part of a hot pace, yet courageously staved off the late run of Animal Kingdom. Kentucky Derby replay »

Because of the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont, the pace should approximate the Derby more so than the Preakness. That could leave Shackleford fresher for the stretch run, but might also mitigate the amount of dirt being kicked back at Animal Kingdom’s face, a factor that contributed to his loss in the Preakness. Preakness replay »

When the field came by the stands the first time in the Preakness, they were spread out, and the amount of dirt being kicked up looked like those old newsreels of Seabiscuit at Santa Anita circa 1937-40. In the Derby, Animal Kingdom was right on the heels of the horses in front of him, and the dirt was hitting him in the chest.

“When the dirt hit him in the face, it put him farther back than I wanted to be,” said John Velazquez, who has ridden Animal Kingdom in the Derby and Preakness. “I wanted to be closer. We had too much ground to make up.”

“He had dirt caked between his blinkers,” Motion said. “I’ve never seen that much dirt. It was extraordinary. I was worried after the Preakness, because, visually, it looked like a tough race. It wasn’t for him, but it looked like it was. He recovered quickly.”

So has Shackleford. “He’s doing well, so there’s no reason not to run,” said his trainer, Dale Romans.

On paper, Shackleford, who will be ridden by Jesus Castanon, holds a distinct pace advantage.

“I don’t see there being a whole lot of pace,” Romans said. “The key is to let him find his stride. Sit there, don’t be sending, don’t be taking a hold. You can be relaxed and still going fast.”

In addition to Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, six other horses who ran in the Derby are in this Belmont. Those eight Derby runners, a record for the Belmont, include the first seven finishers from the Derby, the first time that has happened in the Belmont.

“It’s almost like everyone was right to be lightly raced going into the Derby,” said Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Nehro.

Only Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Mucho Macho Man – who was third in the Derby and sixth in the Preakness – are trying to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Nehro (second in the Derby), Master of Hounds (fifth), Santiva (sixth), Brilliant Speed (seventh), and Stay Thirsty (12th) all ran in the Derby then skipped the Preakness, leaving them fresh.

Isn’t He Perfect, ninth in the Preakness, is the only other horse with Triple Crown experience this spring.

The Triple Crown newcomers in this Belmont are Monzon, Prime Cut, and Ruler On Ice, all longshots of various degrees.

Prime Cut was third and Monzon sixth in the Peter Pan Stakes here on May 14. Ruler On Ice was second in the Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on May 7 in his last start.

Not one horse in this race has a previous win over the track.

And how will that track play? It’s a guess. There could be an off track. Regardless, there are no races scheduled for the main track between the Woody Stephens, whose post time is 3:59 p.m. Eastern, and the Belmont, scheduled for more than 2 1/2 hours later at 6:35 p.m.

“I would think they would be on top of that,” Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Stay Thirsty, said Thursday morning. “Even though we won’t be running on dirt for awhile, hopefully they’ll maintain it as if we are having dirt races during that time. But that will depend on the forecast, if there’s showers in the area.”

And there might be. Thunderstorms were forecast for Thursday night, and showers for Friday and Saturday, leading to a high temperature of 73 degrees on Saturday, and a 60-percent chance of rain.

It was brutally hot and humid in New York both Wednesday and Thursday, and with temperatures flirting with the 100-degree mark on Thursday, the New York Racing Association canceled that day’s racing at Belmont Park out of concern for the animals.

To deal with the heat, Pletcher said trainers “do common-sense stuff.”

“You lighten up their training, keeps fans on them, hose them off as soon as they get back from the track, let them graze a lot in the shade,” Pletcher said.

The Belmont has a purse of $1 million, with $600,000 going to the winner. It is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. The Belmont is the final leg of pick four and pick six wagers that both have guaranteed pools of $1 million. It is also the second leg of a double wager that was to begin with the Brooklyn Handicap on Friday.

The Belmont, along with the Manhattan Handicap for older turf runners, will be shown live by NBC in a two-hour telecast beginning at 5 p.m. The three stakes before the Manhattan – the True North, Stephens, and Just a Game – will be shown live on Versus from 3-5 p.m. Versus also will have a half-hour post-Belmont show, beginning at 7 p.m.

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